Genesis 14:20 Abraham, Melchizedek, Arab Custom and Tithing

An Exhaustive Examination of "Tithe," "Tithes" and "Tithing"

Should the Church Teach Tithing?

A Theologian's Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine

Russell Earl Kelly, PHD

Section 2 –  Genesis 14:20 Abraham, Melchizedek, Arab Custom and Tithing

Melchizedek and Abraham: The Pro-Tithe Position (Gen 14:20)

Genesis 14 is the first mention of tithing in Scripture. It involves Abraham paying tithes to the mysterious Melchizedek. Since this incident in Abraham’s life precedes the Mosaic Law and the Old Covenant by over four centuries, those who teach tithing invariably use verses 18-20 as proof texts. Their position teaches that, since tithing, like marriage and the remainder of the “moral” law actually preceded the Law, then they are “eternal principles” which were not invalidated when the Mosaic Law was replaced by the New Covenant at Calvary. To many, Melchizedek kept the worship of the true God alive over the centuries from the time of Noah until Abraham arrived in Canaan.


Eklund, a Southern Baptist, writes, “The idea of bringing a tithe to God can be found in the very first book of the Bible (see Gen. 14:20; 28:22). It was ­ practiced by Abraham four hundred years before Moses. Bringing a tenth to their god was a common exercise in many ancient societies. Man has always used the number ten as a basis for enumerating. The actual number ten represents ­ completeness. Therefore the tithe symbolized giving our all to God.”[1]


In reply, however, such brief non-detailed assertions and conclusions are hardly the type of documentation required in most serious denominational ­ doctrinal studies. Are we to accept as valid other “common exercises in many ancient societies”? There is no explanation offered concerning the purpose of the narrative in Genesis 14, who Melchizedek really was, what the title of “Most High” meant at that time in Israel’s history, why Melchizedek allowed the king of Sodom to act as his ambassador, the nature of the spoil-tithe, what the significance of Abraham’s announcement of “Yahweh” meant, whether or not Abraham tithed any of his personal property, why Abraham returned the remaining ninety percent to the king of Sodom, or why so much of the chapter involved the king of Sodom. Is the inquisitive student simply to accept the doctrinal position without question?

Narrative of Genesis 14

In order to properly understand why tithing was mentioned in this chapter, God presented the incident in an extended detailed narrative because he did not want it to be taken out of its historical context. We must remember that the climax of a narrative is at the end of the story, and not in the middle.


Before reading the narrative, it is wise to consider its principle of ­ interpretation. “Narrative in its broadest sense is an account of specific space-time events and participants whose stories are recorded with beginnings middles and ends…. Readers too often project some moral or spiritual truth over a ­ biblical character or event, paying more attention to the moral lesson they see in the narrative than to the story itself. The underlying objection to interpreting the Bible in a moralistic, exemplary ­ fashion for every narrative passage is that it destroys the unity of the message of the Bible.”[2]


In approximately 2000 B. C. four city-state kings from around the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers invaded east of the Jordan River towards the southern end of the Dead Sea. Their leader was Chedorlaomer of Elam (v. 1). After traveling between 700-900 miles westward around the fertile crescent (of Mesopotamia), they defeated five small city-kings who ruled within a few miles of each other at the southern end of the Dead Sea (vv. 2-3).


After paying tribute for twelve years, these five rebelled (v. 4). The four kings of the east returned. Proceeding south from Damascus, they defeated numerous city-kings east, south, and southwest of the Dead Sea until they arrived at En-gedi. This placed them about twenty miles south of Salem.

Instead of advancing towards Hebron, Mamre, and Salem, they turned back south and fought the five kings (vv. 5-7). Chedorlaomer was again victorious. He took Abraham’s nephew, Lot, all his goods, all the goods and food of Sodom and Gomorrah and started back home (probably retracing the route east) (vv. 8-12).


At that time Abraham (Abram) lived near Hebron which is located approximately midway between Salem and Sodom (vv. 13, 24). When Abraham heard that Lot had been taken captive, he took 318 trained servants and confederated Amorites and pursued the enemy (vv. 13-14, 24). Using a night attack, he defeated the enemy forces, rescued Lot, and retrieved all of the captives and goods which had been taken from the area of Sodom and Gomorrah (vv. 15-16).


On his return journey, Abraham stopped just outside Salem (which is probably Jerusalem). There he was greeted by the new king of Sodom who was ­ followed by Melchizedek, the king of Salem, priest of El Elyon. Melchizedek brought bread and wine to feed Abraham and his men. Then Melchizedek blessed Abraham (vv. 17-20).


Abraham next honored Melchizedek by giving him a tenth of all the spoils of war that had been stolen from Sodom and Gomorrah (v. 21; Heb. 7:4). The king of Sodom insisted that Abraham keep the rest of the spoils for himself and only return the persons who had been taken from his area of rule (v. 21). Abraham told the king of Sodom that he had promised the LORD (Yahweh, Jehovah), whom he recognized as the El Elyon (Most High God), that he would not take any of the spoil (vv. 22-23). Abraham said he did not want the king of Sodom to boast about making him rich (vv. 23-24).

The Purpose of Genesis 14 in This Book

The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate that Melchizedek does not ­ provide a legitimate pre-law foundation which can be used as an example of tithing for the New Covenant Christian. Although my conclusion is also held by many Christian denominations, it is noteworthy that this is also the original position of the Scofield Reference Bible, leading schools such as Dallas Theological Seminary, Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College, and highly respected authors such as Craig Blomberg, Lewis Sperry Chafer, Walter Elwell, Theodore Epp, John MacArthur, Charles Ryrie, Charles Swindol, Merrill Unger and John Walvoord. These conservative evangelical scholars contend that the historical Melchizedek was never used to validate tithing in the Mosaic Law under the Old Covenant and cannot be used to validate tithing in the New Testament after Calvary. It will be shown that there is no eternal principle found in Genesis 14 which can be brought forward beyond Calvary to the church today. Ample evidence of this position exists in the writings of the previously mentioned authors which are used as textbook authorities in many colleges and seminaries today.


In order to understand the relevance of tithing from this narrative, it is first necessary to stop using verses 18-20 out of their historical context as proof texts and exegete the entire chapter with sound principles of interpretation. It is odd that, while many conservatives such as Jerry Falwell, John Hagee and TBN personalities who support tithing accept dispensational eschatology, but they reject dispensational giving principles.

Abraham’s Tithe Was from the Spoils of War, But Not from Personal Property

14:16 And he brought back all the goods, and also brought again his brother Lot, and his goods, and the women also, and the people.

14:20 And he gave him tithes of all.

Heb. 7:4 Now consider how great this man was, to whom even the patriarch Abraham gave the tenth of the spoils.


Abraham’s tithe was clearly from the spoils of war, booty, which had been taken from Sodom and Gomorrah. It was not from the (later) holy land of Israel, nor was it the defined food and herds from that (later) holy promised land; that is, it did not match the description of tithes as limited under the Mosaic Law (see chapter one). Neither did his tithe support a true Levitical priesthood which had forsaken land ownership in order to serve Yahweh.


Abraham, as head of his household, was a priest himself, and, as such, built altars and worshiped God directly (Gen. 12:7, 8; 13:4, 18; 15:9-18). He did not require a priest like Melchizedek to intercede for him to God. Like Arab clan leaders of our time, as his family’s priest he would make direct contributions of charity to the poor as he served God throughout his nomadic travels. Proper ­ exegesis should begin the discussion of verse 20 at least at verse 16, instead of verse 18, and should continue it beyond verse 20, to at least verse 21.


When Abraham reached the outskirts of Salem he possessed the spoils of war. This included all of the goods which the defeated enemy had taken from the region of Sodom, plus all of the hostages, including Lot. Abraham very clearly gave from this bounty his “tithe” to Melchizedek. As a victorious king with Abraham as his “general,” Melchizedek had first choice of the top of the heap of spoils, the first ten percent of the spoil. However, there is no hint in Scripture that Abraham ever tithed any of his personal property to Melchizedek, either at this time, or later.

Melchizedek’s Ambassador Was the King of Sodom

14:17 And the king of Sodom went out to meet him after his return from the slaughter.


It is inconceivable that a true priest-king of the true God would allow a king who ruled over the base immoral city of Sodom to go first and act as his ambassador. We cannot forget God’s description in chapter 18, verse 20, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great and their sin is very grievous.”


The king of Sodom is an often ignored key player in the historical account of Genesis 14. While three verses (18-20) mention Melchizedek, four verses mention the successor to Bera, his friend and ally, the king of Sodom (21-24). While the last three climatic verses of the narrative are spoken by Abraham to the king of Sodom, not one spoken word is recorded from the mouth of Abraham to Melchizedek himself. The focus and climax of the narrative is Abraham’s declaration to the king of Sodom, and not on his tithe to Melchizedek!


Since the incident occurred just outside the palace of the priest-king, Melchizedek, the king of Sodom must have certainly been acting as Melchizedek’s personal representative, his ambassador. Yet there is no disapproval or improper etiquette indicated.

Melchizedek Was a Semitic Canaanite Priest-King

14:18 And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought forth bread and wine….


Hebrews 7:6 says “he whose descent is not counted from them.” Although much speculation exists, the text itself gives no evidence that Melchizedek was anything other than a self-appointed and self-named pagan priest-king similar to hundreds of others found in his era and in his vicinity around 2000 B. C.


The Wycliffe Bible Commentary,  “The name of this mysterious person means either ‘king of righteousness,’ or ‘my king is righteousness,’ or ‘my king is Zedek.’ Zedek is the Hebrew word for ‘righteousness’ and also the name of a Canaanite deity. Melchizedek was the priest-king of Salem, which is the shortened form of ‘Urusalem,’ ‘city of peace,’ identified with Jerusalem. ‘Shalom’ is the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ and ‘Shalem’ probably was the Canaanite god of peace. This kindly priest-king, recognizing Abram’s nobility and worth, supplied refreshment and sustenance for the weary warrior and his men. These gifts were tokens of friendship and ­ hospitality.”[3]


The preceding quotation opened my eyes to do extensive research on the ignored Phoenician and Canaanite pantheon. Oddly, this statement comes from a commentary re-published for Southwestern Company (Southern Baptist) by Moody Press in 1968. The chapter on Genesis is written by Kyle M. Yates, Sr., Th. D., Ph. D., Professor of Old Testament, Baylor University, Waco, Texas, which is Southern Baptist. If, as Yates claims, Melchizedek worshiped the Canaanite gods, Zedek and Salem, then, logically, El Elyon must have also been a Canaanite god!


The New Bible Commentary: “There is nothing mysterious about him in spite of the interpretation placed by some on Heb. vii, 3. He was king of some Semitic clan, which still occupied Salem, before the Jebusites captured it. There was never an utter extinction of the knowledge of God in the world, and here, too, God had preserved some knowledge of Himself.”[4]


The Matthew Henry Commentary: “The rabbin, and most of our rabbinical writers, conclude that Melchizedek was Shem the son of Noah, who was king and priest to those who descended from him, according to the patriarchal model. But this is not at all probable…. The most commonly received opinion is that Melchizedek was a Canaanitish prince, that reigned in Salem, and kept up the true religion there; but, if so, why his name should occur here only in all the story of Abram, and why Abram should have altars of his own and not attend the altars of his neighbor Melchizedek who was greater than he, seem unaccountable.”[5]

Melchizedek Could Not Have Been Pre-Incarnate Christ

If Melchizedek had been a pre-incarnate manifestation of Jesus Christ before his virgin birth, and if Jesus Christ had previously lived on earth as a priest-king, such an event would have rivaled the importance of the Christ-event! However, the Christ-event, and not Melchizedek, is when God became man and personally lived among his created beings.


It is very important to understand the difference between the historical Melchizedek of Genesis 14 and the prophetic and typical Melchizedek of Psalm 110 and Hebrews 7. “Negative” features of the historical Melchizedek are reversed to become “positive” features of Jesus Christ, the typical Melchizedek, in Psalm 110 and Hebrews 5-7. For the full discussion of this, see the comments at Hebrews 7:1-3 in a later chapter.


In addition, if Melchizedek had been a true worshiper of Yahweh, then he, and not Abraham, would have been God’s choice for starting a chosen nation. Melchizedek was already an established priest-king in a large city in Canaan! However, such logic destroys the entire Bible emphasis and need of Abraham! It was precisely because God could not find a man of faith in Canaan like that of Abraham that he sought out Abraham in Ur and Haran.


Who was Melchizedek? The answer to this question varies almost as much as the number of theologians who discuss him. The impossibility of correctly identifying the historical Melchizedek leads to his typical use by the writer of Hebrews. However, for the purpose of this discussion on tithing, there is simply not enough evidence to unreservedly claim that his reception of tithes must be interpreted as positive proof that New Covenant Christians should tithe. If God had wanted this truth revealed, then God would have certainly emphasized it in the New Covenant, especially in passages like Hebrews 7 and First Corinthians 9. Yet neither Moses in the law nor any New Testament writer used Melchizedek as an example of Hebrew or Christian tithing.

Melchizedek’s Jerusalem Was a Semitic Canaanite City

Although we subconsciously want to associate Melchizedek’s Jerusalem with that of David’s Jerusalem over one thousand years later, this is simply not the case. The Tell Mardikh tablets (c. 2300 B.C.) contain the name “Urusalimum” and hundreds of other places and personal names in the region. The name probably originally meant “founded by the god Shalem,” a goddess (of dawn?) of the Amorites, a consort of Zedek, that is, Jupiter.


When the Jebusites arrived they did not select the best location because the higher place above Kidron was already occupied by a Canaanite ­temple which the Jebusites did not want to displace. Archaeologists claim that the Jebusite fort dated back to at least 2000 B.C. which is the time period of Abraham’s tribute to Melchizedek.[6]


Since the name of “Jerusalem” was known prior to the Jebusite occupation, it probably originally referred to the high hill of Melchizedek’s ­ temple beside the Valley of Zedek. The Jebusites are mentioned as early as Numbers 13:29. They called their city “Jebus” or “Jebusi.” David captured it and named it “The City of David” (Josh. 15:8; 18:16, 28; Judg. 19:10; 2 Sam. 5:8; 1 Chron. 11:4). Evidently the original name of “Jerusalem” regained prominence under David. Again, Shalim was the name of a Canaanite god.


The point of this discussion is that the place which Melchizedek called “Salem” was his pagan Canaanite residence and was not at that time God’s holy city. Even the term “Zion” was originally a Jebusite name for their fort (2 Sam. 5:7).

“Most High God” Was Also a Common Canaanite Title for Both “El” and “Baal”

14:18…and he was the priest of the most high God.

14:19 And he blessed him, and said, Blessed is Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth;

14:20 and blessed is the most high God, which has delivered your ­ enemies into your hand.


A seminary textbook on the principles of interpretation reminds us, “A good interpretation should not depend so heavily on inferences that it cannot stand on its own without the help of theoretical construct…. Did our theory about the historical situation control our reading of the text, or did the text itself suggest the theory?”[7] Relevant to this chapter, does the ­ common conclusion that Melchizedek’s “Most High God” must be Jehovah rest on solid historical proof, or does it rest on the pre-conceived ideas of what interpreters and commentators would like it to mean? It would also be wrong to use Hebrew 7’s “typical” application to change the “historical” meaning of Genesis 14.


It is extremely important for a correct understanding of Genesis 14 to realize that “Most High God,” or “God the Most High,” (Hebrew: “El Elyon”) was a common Canaanite designation for Baal, and even his father, El. Again, neither sentence-structure nor context require this identification to point exclusively to Jehovah, as most commentators conclude. It is unfortunate that “El Elyon” has been “translated,” rather than merely being “transliterated,” and left as “El Elyon.” This error easily confuses the reader and encourages the reader towards a conclusion which is not apparent in the phrase itself. While a casual Canaanite reader would quickly identify the phrase with “El” or “Baal,” a casual contemporary westerner would conclude that the term identifies Jehovah, or Yahweh. A comparative problem has been eliminated by Bible translators who have wisely chosen to retain the name “Baal,” instead of translating it as “Lord.”


Fausset’s Bible Dictionary comments on the name “El Elyon” by saying, “The Phoenicians so named their chief god according to Sanchoniathon in Enseb. Praep. Event., doubtless from primitive revelation.”[8]


International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Like El Elyon, “Baal” (Babylonian “Bel”), the supreme Canaanite god, was also called “Lord,” “master,” and “possessor of heaven and earth.”[9] At least from Melchizedek’s point of view, “Baal” is equally a logical, though usually ignored, meaning of “El Elyon.” To further confuse the names, there are also sources which claim that “Elyon” was the grandfather of “El” and that an eighth century Aramaic treaty stele even describes “El” and “Elyon” as two distinct deities. I encourage anybody who is interested in this study to make a trip to a large library and research the religions of Phoenicia and Canaan. Daniel, the book of Gentile prophecy, refers to God in Aramaic almost exclusively as “the Most High God,” or “Most High” (Dan. 3:26; 4:17, 24, 25, 32, 34; 5:18, 21). Lucifer schemed to sit upon the throne of “the Most High” (Isa. 14:13-14). “The Most High God” is a name that relates to ALL nations, ALL heaven, and ALL earth—not just Israel. (Compare 2 Sam. 22:14; Ps. 7:17; 18:13; 21:7; 47:2; 83:18; 87:5; 91:1-2, 9; 92:1, 8; 97:9).

“El Elyon” Could Betray Melchizedek as Ignorant of Yahweh

First, Melchizedek did not know God as “Yahweh,” that is, “LORD,” or “Jehovah.” It is important to recognize that Melchizedek called himself the priest of “El Elyon,” “Most High God” in verses 18-20 and did NOT call himself the priest of “Yahweh, the Most High God,” as did Abraham to the king of Sodom in verse 22.


Those special to God knew His name! “Yahweh,” the “LORD,” is the special name through which God first revealed himself in Genesis 2:4 to Adam and Eve. God spoke to Cain as Yahweh in 4:6, to Noah in 5:29; 6:3; 7:1; 8:20 and 9:26; to Nimrod in 10:8-9; to those at the tower of Babel in 11:5; and to Abram in 12:1. The name, “Yahweh,” occurs over 160 times in Genesis alone. Worshipers of all ages, especially those in Abraham’s time, were very particular about knowing the NAME of the god to whom they prayed. Because of this Scriptural fact, it is almost inconceivable that Melchizedek could have been a true priest of the true God and yet not know his special name! Therefore, I believe that Melchizedek’s ignorance about the true name of Yahweh should disqualify him from being one who carried the name from Noah’s time.


SecondMelchizedek might have been identifying himself as a Semitic Canaanite by calling himself priest of “El Elyon,” “Most High God.” As just mentioned, this reference, “Most High God,” was almost universally used by non-Hebrew Semitic people to designate their concept of “Baal,” or even his father “El,” the bull-god and father of the Canaanite pantheon.

“El,” the Hebrew word most often translated as “God” in our Bibles, is a generic reference word and is not necessarily a “name.” “El” can just as easily mean “god” with a little “g,” “the might of nature,” or even “an angel” (Exod. 34:14; Deut. 32:12; Judg. 9:46; Isa. 44:10). “El” (Strong’s 410) and its root words, uwl (Strong’s 193) and ah-yil (Strong’s 352), all basically mean “might” and “strength.” As previously mentioned, any Canaanite would immediately associate “El Elyon” with either “El” or “Baal”—instead of the Hebrew’s Yahweh.[10]


Until Genesis 14, God had identified himself as “Elohim” and “Yahweh.” He subsequently identified himself as “Almighty” in 17:1; 35:11; 43:14; and 48:3. God referred to himself in Genesis as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” By revelation, the non-Hebrew prophet, Balaam, identified Israel’s God as Yahweh, the Almighty, and Most High in Numbers 24:13-16. While referring to all nations, Moses called God “Most High” in Deuteronomy 32:8. The point is that, while he is the true Most High, God did not prefer to be identified by El Elyon in the Pentateuch! Although Genesis 14, Numbers 24, and Deuteronomy 32 are the only three uses of “Most High” in the Pentateuch, this name for God would not appear again for over one thousand years when David uttered it in Second Samuel 22:14—after his capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites in 5:7.


In other words, except for Abraham’s declaration that his Most High was actually “Yahweh, LORD” in Genesis 14:22 and the reference by Moses to the “nations” in Deuteronomy 32:8, this name for God, El Elyon, is of very little importance to the patriarchs like Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. When David did begin using El Elyon again, it was usually prefixed by “LORD.” Thus Melchizedek’s use of Most High for his god likely betrayed himself as a Canaanite who did not know God’s most special covenant name, Yahweh.


Third, Scripture does not tell us that Abraham revealed the name of the true Most High God to Melchizedek. The key thought and climax of the narrative is found in verses 21-24, not in verses 18-20 which receive too much attention. Why? Because God’s “champion” at this point in the Old Testament is Abraham, and not Melchizedek! Although Abraham must have certainly spoken to Melchizedek, not one spoken word from Abraham to Melchizedek is recorded in Scripture! Odd indeed if God considered their meeting so important.


In summary, the great revelation that Abraham’s Most High was actually “Yahweh” was not made until he defended his actions towards the king of Sodom in verse 22. This omission of “Yahweh” concerning Melchizedek is important. Those who rush to make Genesis 14 teach tithing miss this point that, as priest of the “Most High” (El Elyon), Melchizedek did not know God as “LORD” (Yahweh, Jehovah), the covenant-God of Abraham and Israel. He was not priest of the “LORD Most High,” and it was only Abraham who identified God as “LORD” Most High. (Note: English Bibles use all capitals for ‘LORD’ when the Hebrew word is ‘Yahweh, Jehovah.’) [11]

Abraham’s Tithe to Melchizedek Was an Arab War Custom

14:20…which has delivered your enemies into your hand. And he gave him tithes of all.

14:21 And the king of Sodom said to Abram, Give me the persons, and take the goods to yourself.


As documented in the first chapter, tithing did not originate in the Bible (and nobody claims that it did). It was a well-known pagan practice from Phoenicia, Egypt, Canaan, Mesopotamia and lands around the Fertile Crescent. It was a mandatory customary tax to a pagan god or ruler. The Roman Empire continued this tradition by requiring its defeated subject nations, like Israel, to return the spoil of the first tithe of the land to them! From a comparison of discussions of verse 21, Abraham’s tithe to Melchizedek was in obedience to this old Arab war ­ custom and was not a command from Yahweh. Evidently, the Arab war custom specified that ten percent of the spoils of war be given to the local priest-king, while the ninety percent belonged to the victor.


Abraham was OBLIGATED to pay a special one-time tithe-tax of the spoils of war. While those spoils usually belonged to an enemy, in this case, they belonged to Melchizedek’s ally, ambassador-friend, and possible subject, the king of Sodom (and those he represented).


Most of us have been told all of our lives that Abraham gave a free-will tithe to Melchizedek—but no evidence for this exists in God’s Word. Many commentaries and theologians give contradictory reasons “why” Abraham tithed. Did he tithe because he freely wanted to give an offering to thank God and honor Melchizedek? Or did he tithe because he was obligated to tithe in observance of an old Arab war custom? It is clearly contradictory to interpret the ten percent in verse 20 as “free-will” and interpret the ninety percent in verse 21 as an “Arab war custom.” A ­ resolution of this contradiction is crucial for a correct understanding of Abraham’s tithe and simply must be reconciled if the truth is to emerge.

“Abram makes a practical acknowledgment of the absolute and exclusive supremacy of the God whom Melchizedek worshiped” (v. 20)…


“the king of Sodom concedes to Abram, according to custom, the spoils of conquest as his right, and claims for himself only his subjects who had been rescued from the foe” (v. 21).[12] Did Abraham tithe to honor God’s “supremacy,” or “according to Arab custom”?

“It was to a priest of the most high God that Abraham gave a tenth of the spoil as a token of his gratitude, and in honor of a divine ordinance” (v. 20)…


“according to the war customs still existing among the Arab tribes, Abram might have retained the recovered goods, and his right was acknowledged by the King of Sodom” (v. 21).[13] Was it “in honor of a divine ordinance,” or “according to war customs”?

“This priestly reception Abram reciprocated by giving him the tenth of all, i.e., of the whole of the booty taken from the enemy. Giving the tenth was a practical acknowledgment of the divine priesthood of Melchizedek; for the tenth was, according to the general custom, the offering presented to the Deity” (v. 20)…


“the king of Sodom asked for his people only, and would have left the rest of the booty to Abram” (v. 21).[14] Was Abraham honoring Melchizedek’s “divine priesthood,” or was the king of Sodom acknowledging Arab war custom by telling Abraham to keep the rest of the booty?

“As an offering vowed and dedicated to the most high God, and therefore put into the hands of Melchizedek his priest” (v. 20)…


“where a right is dubious and divided, it is wisdom to compound the matter by mutual concessions rather than to contend. The king of Sodom had an original right both to the persons and to the goods, and it would bear a debate whether Abram’s acquired right by rescue would supersede his title and extinguish it; but, to prevent all quarrels, the king of Sodom makes this fair proposal (v. 21).”[15] Did Abraham give ten percent as a voluntary “dedication” to God, and also have a “right” to keep the ninety percent because of Arab war custom?

“In giving tithes Abram acknowledged Melchizedek’s God as the true God and Melchizedek’s priesthood as a true one” (v. 20)…


“according to Arab law, and this may have obtained in Abram’s time, if anyone receives booty, he gives up only the persons but is entitled to keep the remainder for himself” (v. 21).[16]

Be honest with yourself and God’s Word here! Common sense tells us that the ten percent of verse 20 cannot be defined as Abraham’s voluntary worship of the Most High God if the ninety percent of verse 21 is ­ controlled by a demanding Arab law! The most likely and obvious reason that Abraham tithed to Melchizedek was the mandatory Arab war custom which required a tenth of the spoils of war be given to the local ruler. Abraham did not choose to freely tithe in order to proclaim that Melchizedek was a priest of his God—otherwise, the reasoning for verse 21 is contradictory. This fact simply cannot be ignored.

Spoils of War Rules under Moses and David: Comparing Spoil-Tithes to Spoil-Tithes

Num. 31:21 And Eleazar the priest said to the men of war which went to the battle, This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD commanded Moses…. [Verses 22-25 discuss purification rites of spoils and persons after battle from verse 19].


Num. 31:25 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying….

[verses 25-54 discuss division of spoils after battle]

Num. 31:27 And divide the plunder into TWO PARTS—between them that took the war upon them, who went out to battle, and between all the congregation.

Num. 31:28 And levy a tribute to the LORD of the men of war which went out to battle—one soul [living creature] of five hundred….

[1/500th of one half; 1/1000th; .1% to priests]

Num. 31:29 Take it of their half, and give it to Eleazar the priest, for a heave offering of the LORD.

Num. 31:30 And of the children of Israel’s half, you shall take one portion of fifty…and give them to the Levites, which keep the charge of the tabernacle of the LORD.

[1/50th of one half; 1/100th; 1% to Levites]


While we are always reminded to properly compare “apples to apples” and not “apples to oranges,” most commentators ignore this simple childhood rule in discussing the tithe of Genesis 14:20.


Under ARAB custom, the spoil-tithe was TEN percent, 10%. However, under the Mosaic Law, the spoil-tithe was only ONE percent (1%) to the Levites (Numbers 31:27,28) and only one tenth of one percent (.1%) to the priests (Numbers 31:29,30).


In fact, if God’s spoken word to Moses in Numbers 31:25 is of “ordinance” value and adds to the ordinance in verse 21, then these verses ­ contain THE ordinance of the Mosaic Law which sets the spoil-tax at only one percent (1%)(1/50th of one half, or 1/100th) and not ten percent (10%) which the Arab tradition required in Genesis 14:20! The priests still received 1/10th of that which the Levites received. Therefore, when we compare spoil-tithes to spoil-tithes, we discover why neither Moses nor the Law referred back to Abraham as an example of Law tithing—they were different!


Also, while it is noteworthy that the priests received a “tithe,” or one tenth as much as the Levites received (1/1000th is 10% of 1/100th), the Arab custom of a ten percent spoil-tax-tithe from Genesis 14 is greatly reduced to only one percent in the Mosaic Law. See also First Samuel 30:20-35 for an example of David’s distribution of spoils of war.


Genesis 14 is a discussion of how Abraham reacted to the Arab custom of ­ paying a tenth of the spoils of war to the local priest-king. While living under pagan rulers, he obeyed pagan custom. Genesis 14 is not a discussion of tithing under the Mosaic Law. If one were to properly compare “apples to apples,” then a comparable discussion should lead to the one percent in Numbers 31 and other Old Testament texts which refer to spoils of war. Only an incorrect “apples to oranges” approach changes the subject from spoils-of-war tithes to Levitical tithes.

Abraham Gave Up His Rights under Traditional Law and Returned the Ninety Percent

Abraham did not choose to tithe to Melchizedek because he was priest of the true Most High God. Instead, Abraham was obligated by long-standing Arab war custom to return a tithe of the spoils of war. Since there is no correlation between this tithing and that found in the Mosaic Law, the Mosaic Law never quotes Genesis 14 or even alludes to it in support of tithing. This is strange, indeed, since most modern tithe-advocates ignore the law as a foundation, go first to Melchizedek, and then turn back to Leviticus 27 and Malachi 3 to find money instead of food. They also preach ­tithing and Melchizedek from Genesis 14 instead of the more dangerous Melchizedek text of Hebrews 7.


The king of Sodom followed the old tradition when he asked for return of the persons taken from him. Evidently, Canaanite custom permitted Abraham to keep the goods and only return the persons. Therefore, as soon as Abraham offered a tenth of the spoils to Melchizedek, the king of Sodom insisted that Abraham keep the balance of the goods, the ninety percent, for himself (vv. 20-21). Verse 21 simply must be included in any discussion of verse 20.

14:22 And Abram said to the king of Sodom, I have lifted up my hand to the LORD, the Most High God….


This declaration by Abraham begins the dramatic climax of the narrative and the real key point of the entire narrative in Genesis 14. Abraham declared allegiance to “Yahweh,” his LORD, whom he knew was the real “Most High God” (v. 22). He refused to keep the customary ninety ­ percent of the spoils (vv. 23-24).

Why Chapter 14 Divides 12-13 and 15-17

14:23 That I will not take from a thread even to a sandal thong, and that I will not take any thing that is yours, in case you should say, I have made Abram rich,

14:24 Except only that which the young men have eaten, and the portion of the men which went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their portion.


Chapter 14 follows God’s promises by faith to Abraham in chapters 12 and 13 and it precedes God’s promises by faith in chapters 15 through 17. When Abraham did not deserve blessings, he received wealth (by grace) from Pharaoh (chapter 12) and Abimelech (chapters 20, 21). However, when he actually did something to earn wealth in chapter 14, he gave it all back. In chapter 14 Abraham had an opportunity to become suddenly very wealthy through his own works by keeping the riches of Sodom and the five kings of the southern Dead Sea. Yet Abraham, refusing to acquire wealth in such manner, returned ALL of it, not just ten percent! This event demonstrates that Abraham’s justification, sanctification, and wealth ALL depended on faith, and not matters of customs and law.


Abraham represented God’s covenant of grace, not the Old Covenant of law. The Arab custom concerning the spoils of war demanded a tribute of a tithe and allowed Abraham to keep the ninety percent and become instantly much more wealthy. However, while living under the constraints of Arab law, Abraham refused to be blessed through the provisions of that law. He deliberately rejected the Arab law-blessing opportunity because he knew that God was fully capable of blessing him through the operation of grace and faith in his life. Keeping the ninety percent would have meant keeping the worldly goods belonging to the king of Sodom. God had better blessings in store for Abraham which are eternal.


Again, Genesis 14 is a narrative with the climax at the end of the story, and not in the middle. The climax involves neither Melchizedek, nor tithing. Instead, it involves Abraham’s assurance that God would keep his promises made by grace through faith, and not by military conquest, or Arab law-keeping.


Objection: How can Melchizedek be a type of Christ if he was not a relative of Shem or Abraham and was a Canaanite?


The Bible takes many terms and names which have negative meanings and turns them into very positive spiritual meanings. (1) Jerusalem had its Semitic Canaanite name long before the Israelites captured it and “Jerusalem” did not originally refer to David’s city of peace. (2) The Semitic Canaanite Jebusites who ruled in Jerusalem for 1000 years after Abraham called their pagan fort, Mount Zion (2 Sam. 5:7). Only later did “Mount Zion” become a very holy term for both Israelites and Christians. (3) The brass serpent which Moses made in Numbers 21:8, 9 to remind Israel of its rebellion became a symbol of God’s healing. (4) In Habakkuk the Babylonian army is depicted as God’s army which will punish Israel. (5) The pagan King Cyrus of Persia is called “my shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28 because God used him to deliver Israel. (6) The cross of Jesus was changed from a symbol of shame and sin into a symbol of victory and life in Hebrews 12:2. (7) Since the vowel markings were not added to the Hebrew language until many centuries after Christ, the triad of MLK in the Canaanite language most often referred o MoLoK (see Amos 5:26 in Hebrew). The title, Abi-melech, the Philistine king of Gerar whom Abraham served in Genesis 20:2 probably means “my father is Molok.”

Summary: Abraham’s Tithe is Not an Example for Christians to Follow

Some believe that this passage demonstrates that tithing is commanded to the New Testament church because it existed before the law, just as marriage was before the law. But this comparison is not valid. Marriage preceded the law, was included in it, and was also repeated after the law. However, tithing, Sabbath observance and unclean foods also preceded the law, were included in it, but were not repeated after Calvary as commandments to the Christian church.


Abraham’s spoils-of-war tithe was:

One: Not a commandment of the LORD, but an observance of a common pagan custom.

Two: Not of his own personal property, but was only of the spoils of war from unbelievers.

Three: Not a Mosaic holy land tithe; he returned 100% to Canaanites.

Four: Not a means of wealth through Arab law-keeping.

Five: Not quoted to support tithing for Hebrews or Christians.

Six: Not a condition of receiving God’s blessings promised through faith in surrounding chapters.

Seven: Not to Abraham’s LORD, Yahweh, but to a pagan priest who did not know and worship God as LORD. Melchizedek probably worshiped Baal as Most High God and possessor of heaven and earth. As a Canaanite priest-king, Melchizedek worshiped idols of Baal, offered child sacrifices, and promoted incest and sex with animals as part of pagan worship ritual. In paying this mandatory tribute, it is unfortunate that Abraham’s pagan tithe-tax would have been used to promote such sin. (See Leviticus 18 and Deuteronomy 18:9-14.)


One recent theologian has pointed out that verses 22-25 constitute a vow. If Abram made this vow prior to rescuing Lot, then the tenth which he gave to Melchizedek could also be explained as a free-will vow. See David Croteau, Ph.D. dissertation, 2005., SEBTS.

[1] Eklund, 64.

[2] William C. Kaiser, Moises Silva, editors, An Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics: The Search for Meaning (Grand Rapids: Zondervan), 69-71.

[3] Wycliffe Comm., s.v. “Gen. 14.” Although this commentary is published by Moody Press and uses authors from many denominations, it is predominantly Baptist. The author’s copy is from The Southwestern Company, Nashville, Tennessee and lists over 20 Southern Baptist and independent Baptist contributors.

[4] F. Davidson, ed., New Bible Commentary (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1953), s.v. “Gen. 14.”

[5] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “Gen. 14.”

[6] Unger’s, s.v. “Jebusites and Archaeology.”

[7] Kaiser, 127.

[8] Fausset’s, s.v. “Melchizedek.”

[9] James Orr, ed., International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE), CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “God, Names of, Elohim, El,” also s.v. “Baal.”

[10] Augustus Hopkins Strong, Biblesoft’s New Exhaustive Strong’s Numbers and Concordance with Expanded Greek-Hebrew Dictionary, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. O.T. 193, 332, 410.”

[11] Hebrew vowels were not added to the Old Testament until the Masoretes added them many centuries after Christ. Thus the MLK of Melech, the ZDK of Zedek, and the SLM of Salem, had other pronunciations and other meanings in Semitic (Phoenician, Canaanite, Philistine, Moabite, etc) religions.

[12] Albert Barnes, Barnes Notes, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “Gen. 14:20-21.”

[13] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “Gen 14:20-21.”

[14] C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament, CD-ROM (Seattle: Biblesoft, 1999), s.v. “Gen. 14:20-21.”

[15] Henry, s.v. “Gen. 14:20-21.”

[16] New Bible Comm., s.v. “Gen. 14:20-21.”

NOT IN BOOK: From John Owen, famous Calvinist apologist, Commentary on Hebrews 7. For full article see


Genesis 14:18-20


Owen: [Genesis 14:18-20] … for Abraham gave only the tenth of the spoils, which were not tithe-able by law. For if the places taken or destroyed in war were anathematized, as Jericho was, and also Amalek, no portion was to be reserved, under a pretense of sacrifice or any other sacred use; as Saul found to his cost.


Kelly: Unlike almost every tithe-teacher, Owen places no value on Abraham’s tithe because it was from accursed spoils of war which would have been rejected as tithes under the Law.


And if they [tithes from spoils of war] were not anathematized, all the spoils were left entirely unto the people that went to war, without any sacred decimation. So the Reubenites and the Gadites, at their return over Jordan into their own land, carried all their rich spoils and cattle with them, no tithe being mentioned, Joshua 22:8; — although there is no question but many of them offered their freewill offerings at the tabernacle.


And when God would have a sacred portion out of the spoils, as he would have in the wilderness, out of those that were taken from the Midianites, to manifest that they fell not under the law of tithes, he took not the tenth part, but one portion of five hundred from the soldiers, and one of fifty from the people, Numbers 31:28-30. Wherefore the giving of the tenth of the spoils was not from the obligation of any law, but was an act of free-will and choice in the offerer.


But yet there was so great an equity herein also, — namely, that God should have an acknowledgment in the fruits of those successes which he gave in war, — that out of the spoils of his and his people’s enemies David made his provision for the building of the temple. And the captains of the host that went against Midian, after a tribute was raised for the Lord out of the spoils according unto the proportions mentioned, when they found the goodness of God in the preservation of their soldiers, whereof there was not one lost, they made a new voluntary oblation unto God out of their spoils, Numbers 31:48-50.